This Wednesday, I cease to be leader of Hastings Council. That’s because I decided to resign, after almost five years of doing the job. The new leader will be Kim Forward, in whom I have every confidence, and who I know will be an excellent council leader. The timing of my resignation was intended to be a few weeks before the May council elections. It seemed a bit disingenuous to resign immediately after the election, the local electorate needed to know who they were going to end up with as their leader if Labour were again successful and retained control of the council. In the event, the elections have now been cancelled, but I’m still resigning anyway, and Kim will formally take over on Wednesday.
I became leader unexpectedly in 2015, following the sudden and tragic death of Jeremy Birch, who was taken ill in the town centre while handing out leaflets for the 2015 general election (I was with him at the time), and died a few days later. I still miss him – he was a good comrade and a good leader. Being council leader wasn’t something I ever expected to do – we all thought Jeremy would be there for years to come.
I have been involved in local government for a long time – first working for Hackney Council in 1982, then becoming a councillor in Hackney and chair of the Housing Committee, then working in and around local government, for the Audit Commission, as a freelance consultant., and as an interim manager for several different councils, of varying political colour. I was first elected to Hastings Council in 2000. I had vowed never to be a councillor again after my experiences in Hackney, but was persuaded back into the fray.
Back in the 1980s under the Thatcher government, we thought the cuts to local government were severe, and put our lives on the line by setting ‘illegal’ budgets and risking surcharge. But none of that came close to the cuts to local government we’ve seen over the last ten years, and in the last five in particular. Illegal budgets and surcharge are no longer possible (Thatcher changed the law to prevent that), but these five years as leader have been especially dispiriting. So much of my time has been taken up by meetings where we’re constantly trying to find more services we can cut, whom we can make redundant. True, there have been some inspiring innovations in income generation that have helped, and new technology has enabled online applications for council services and payments, saving more money, although that’s led to yet more redundancies.
There have been some good times, and some things the council has done that I’m particularly proud of: the Grotbuster programme to improve eyesore properties, the Coastal Space project to create social housing from derelict properties in St Leonards, the world-first natural filtration system in Alexandra Park to improve bathing water quality, being one of only two councils in the country to retain 100% Council Tax reduction for people on out-of-work benefits, restoring the abandoned White Rock Baths as the world’s largest underground BMX arena … and lots more. But all this has been achieved against a backdrop of continuous, deepening, cruel cuts … it’s time to let someone else have a go. Besides, five years isn’t a bad length of time for anyone to be a council leader – it was never supposed to be a job for life, or anywhere near that.
Will I miss it? Yes, some of it. What will I miss most? The view out to sea from the leader’s room in Muriel Matters House.
So I’ll have a bit of time on my hands, and will be able to do a blog, for which this is the first post. It will include politics of course (local and national), but also a bit of gardening, chicken-keeping, classic cars, microbiology (that’s what I did, originally), and general reflections on life. I hope you enjoy it.